Unforeseen Adventures

Travelling the world. Having some weird and awkward times.

My First Time at a Korean Jjimjilbang: Spa Land Busan

Disclaimer: I know that this is too much writing, too few pictures. I didn’t take any. I apologize.

Here is a picture I did take of a Busan sunset instead.

Pros

  • Get naked: It’s a lesson in body confidence
  • Free eggs?
  • Very relaxing

Cons

  • Feel incredibly uncomfortable until you’ve learned the lesson of body confidence
  • Can be awkward if you don’t want eggs


I got to South Korea. Googled ‘top things to do in South Korea’. Because. Well. I have no imagination or knowledge of my own. And was flooded with the reams of advice on the interweb telling me to spend the night at a jjimjilbang.

I googled it and was disappointed to find that a jjimjilbang is, in fact, a Korean spa and not a sex thing. But I thought I’d give it a go anyway.

After all, most of them are open 24 hours a day and are cheaper than even the shittiest of hostels. And then I was offered the following advice by a guy I met who was living there. ‘Yea it’s definitely a must-do while you’re here. Just make sure you pick a spot by the security cameras in case anyone tries to rape you in the night’…Right. Great. Yea….

…I decided to just go in the day instead.

Spa day

At first, I was a little apprehensive. Because I’ll be honest. I’m not even a fan of wearing short sleeves in public because it means that my upper arms will be on show. A big part of the Korean spa experience is enforced public nudity.

I was also worried about being able to correctly follow the reportedly, very specific, rules about where to be naked, and where you absolutely should not be naked.

But, fuck it. I was only going to be in South Korea once (probably). What’s the worst that can happen?

I chose Spa Land in Shinsegae Department Store, Busan. Partly because of great reviews, like this one. Partly because some of the reviews promised signage in English and I was still worried about taking a wrong turn and ending up completely naked in the middle of the world’s largest department store. And partly because, well, I was in Busan.

We arrived and paid about 15000 won per person for 4 hours. Praise the lord, the staff spoke English, told us where to go, how to use the lockers, and gave us some towels and what looked like an oversized prison outfit.

The baths

Let me tell you, the baths were a very liberating experience. For a girl who exclusively wears outfits consisting of several layers of ‘too big’ clothing, when it comes down to it, I’m quite the natural at being publicly naked. Either that or my habit of pretending I know what I’m doing and am aware of what’s expected of me at all times is unbreakable, even in the face of extreme discomfort.

And it turns out the answer to the question ‘should I be naked now?’ is easy. Because the answer is yes.

There are baths of varying temperatures both indoors and out. The warm ones were very relaxing. The cold ones were terrible (what can I say, hypothermia just isn’t my favourite health condition).

I even got comfortable enough to brave an exfoliating treatment. I felt like a new woman! And not because I literally was one after all of my skin layers had been scrubbed away. But because you don’t know what body confidence is until you’ve laid down naked in a room full of people while an ageing Asian woman dressed in lingerie spreads your legs and violently scrubs all of your body parts (even the ones dangerously close to your actual vagina) to within an inch of their lives.

The jjimjilbang

Then it was onto the communal rooms. This is the bit where you get to put on your prison clothes. Here, they have a variety of therapeutic rooms of different temperatures and healing properties. Ranging from the ‘ice room’ which is just basically a room with air con. To a blisteringly awful room of around 70 degrees.

Most of the rooms under 50 degrees were so relaxing I almost slipped into a coma. Then there was the sauna. Now, I personally don’t find saunas relaxing. I find the suffocating heat and ability to hear my heart beating in my brain to be panic inducing. But maybe that’s just me.

But once I stepped inside, I accidentally sat next to a woman who was so entertained by pointing at the many beads of sweat dripping from every pore in my body (who even knew knees could sweat?!) that I felt I had to stay. About 10 minutes into the sweating an elderly Korean man entered the sauna, sat down, and offered me an egg.

I remember that I read something about eggs and saunas in my bathhouse research, so I didn’t know if it was just a thing to sit, drenched in sweat, in a confined space with 10s of strangers and eat, possibly the most offensive smelling food of all time. Or whether it was just because Korean people are crazy about eggs in general. But I really really didn’t want an egg.

If you would like to experience what an uncomfortable social situation feels like, try to politely decline a boiled egg through mime (due to the language barrier) at the same time as dripping in sweat and fighting for consciousness in a 70-degree room.

Before I knew it I had come to the end of my four hours. And thus concludes my first (and only) trip to a Korean jjimjilbang.

Conclusion

Not for you if you have some sort of contagious skin infection.

However, if you enjoy sitting naked in communal pools of water, eating eggs in hot weather, and wearing comfortable yet unflattering pyjamas in public, then the jjimjilbang is right up your street. If you don’t like any of those things then try it out anyway, it’s good to do things that are out of your comfort zone right?

And if you’re as socially inept as I am, read this. It’s what bought me out of my ‘I’m going to do everything wrong and everyone will point and laugh at me while I’m naked’ anxiety attack.

Overall, it was a thoroughly relaxing way to spend an afternoon (after coming to terms with the public nudity). Four hours didn’t seem long enough somehow, and I would definitely go again, probably everyday if I could.

So if anyone knows of any Korean style spas in Canada then please let me know, so that when I move there I can make plans to live next door to one. I may never wear clothes again!

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My Last Ever Trip to a Chinese Hair Salon (Probably)

I had a whole day to kill in Guangzhou before my flight back to London. So I decided to aimlessly roam the streets, get my hair cut, and contract food poisoning. Just, you know, all my favourites.

Upon finding a hair salon. I was escorted to the nearest ATM for the funds by a man who cheerfully yelled ‘LAOWAI’ repeatedly to the entire neighbourhood while pointing at me and laughing.

Having ascertained that I just wanted to have ‘a trim of the hairtail’ the hairdresser took his translation app, used it to kindly inform me that I was a person and charged me 45rmb.

I was then violated by the hair washing sinks* and taken back to my seat for 6 hairdressers to crowd around me and tell me that my Chinese was ‘not very easily’.

During my visit I only had to stop him taking selfies with me from unflattering angles a mere 37 times, and on just 3 separate occasions did he go out of his way to give his phone to someone else so that they could ‘subtly’ stand out of my eye line and take photos on his behalf (with the flash and camera shutter sound still on). Which I found much less persistent than average.

In the four short hours it took for the hairdresser to ‘trim my hairtail’ strand by strand (apart from the front which he cut by grabbing 2 uneven chunks on either side and suddenly hacking off about 2 inches) he complimented me on my nose twice and told me I was his goddess.

But in all that time. In all the, probably 5, hours I spent in that salon. Not once did I have to engage in small talk more complex than looking confused and saying ‘xie xie’. I’ll miss getting my hair cut in China.

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*I’m not sure a back massage is supposed to happen when you just go for a quick trim of the hairtail…

Unfiltered anecdotes from the ESL classroom

So this weekend. Just for an insight into how delightful teaching English at a training centre can be. A kid bought a blade into class and waved it in the face of his classmates because he didn’t write the word ‘breakfast’ as quickly as someone else wrote the word ‘breakfast’ therefore he didn’t win a point for his team and he was mad about it. Really mad. Like a not normal amount of mad.

Since my teaching assistant has clearly never come close enough to common sense to catch any, she tried to hug him because of course it’s not a problem to threaten violence with knives and I am a terrible person for stopping him from going about his blade-wielding in peace. He started to punch her repeatedly. Which was also totally ok for her. And then she wiped his tears away for him because he was too tired from attacking her to do it himself and he needed comforting after being reprimanded for threatening other children with a stabbing.

And then I asked my teaching assistant (who speaks little English) why he even had a knife in school, and she responded calmly with ‘yes, it’s a knife. You know, to kill with’. Oh right. Brilliant.

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Camels have no business standing in the street on a Monday afternoon.

So I saw an unusual number of live camels in the street on my way home from work today. I’m counting 2 as noteworthy because the usual number of camels is…y’know..no camels.

Here is a picture of one…

I didn’t get a shot of the other one because I was over it by then, and also people had started to crowd around me by that point. Evidently the opportunity to take pictures of a foreigner trying to photograph something as mundane as a casual camel standing in the street was one not to be missed.

Also here are 2 separate, terribly lit, photos of men staring through my office window as proof that, in China, the mere sight of me is so shockingly alien that I might be in danger of being captured and held captive for use as a tourist attraction like the camels.

Happy Monday.

A New Normal?

Nothing weird has happened to me in over a week. I must be getting used to the Chinese ways.

I didn’t even flinch when I saw a child take a shit in the supermarket earlier. I don’t know if I should be happy or leave the country immediately. I don’t think I want to think it’s normal for people to empty their bowels amongst the fresh produce.

Huangshan(The Yellow Mountains): Chinese New Year Travel Hell

Disclaimer: I went on Chinese New Year. Known as the worst time to go anywhere in China. Most people that have been appear to have had a good time. And also, I’m not very organised so some of the bad was completely my fault.

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Pros

  • Breathtaking scenery
  • Climbing mountains is good exercise I guess, if you’re into that
  • Tunxi is cool
  • A woman gave me some small oranges

Cons

  • There are too many people to enjoy the scenery
  • There are too many people to move freely
  • There are too many people in general
  • Have to tolerate a great invasion of privacy in return for small oranges

Back in February, when I’d been in China for one month. Chinese New Year happened. I decided to take my first trip. To Huangshan (or the Yellow Mountains). Unfortunately, so did 1.3 billion other humans.

The Journey
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The man that stared at me for 12 straight hours

And so begins my career as a professional zoo exhibit.Because I am an organised and efficient adult. I decided it would be best to ignore all warnings along the lines of ‘everything will be sold out early’ and book everything 2 days before I went. (Which is very forward planning for me actually). Which meant I had the pleasure of taking a 12 hour slow train. On a hard seat ticket.
In fairness, it wasn’t actually that bad. As far as 12 hour train journeys in unheated carriages in mid winter with a middle aged Chinese woman resting her bare feet on your face go.
As I wasn’t yet accustomed enough to the language to understand any of the stations as they were shouted down the train by an elderly man, I stayed put and just followed everyone else off the train at 7am. In the hopes that I was at least somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Huangshan.
Luckily, when I showed the taxi driver the address of my hostel there was no apparent shock and it was treated like a normal request. So I guess I was in the right place.
Tunxi
I spent the first night in Tunxi, a nearby town.
To be honest, the first thing I did was head out to panic buy 2 hot water bottles as soon as I found out that the air conditioner at my hostel didn’t work and the shower was outdoors. The man I bought them from seemed to require some sort of proof that I was qualified to make such a purchase and was very reluctant to put the sale through until I’d explained to him how I was going to use them.
As someone who had never been to a Chinese ‘old town’ before, Tunxi was great. Very Chinese looking. Very touristy and crowded. But very interesting.
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See. Crowded.

I saw loads of things I hadn’t seen before. Local residents washing their clothes in the river and then hanging them out to dry alongside huge chunks of meat. 

7000 people queuing for one restaurant on a street of 30 restaurants.
Chinese tourists climbing over absolutely everything that it’s possible to climb over in order to get a good photo.
The sun, it was the first time I’d seen that since the day I arrived too. Loads of things.
It was also the first time in my life that a woman forced her child to come up to me and call me ‘ayi’. I still don’t know what that means, but it’s the same word used to describe Chinese cleaning ladies over the age of 60, so I suspect I should be offended.
The way up

The next day I was delighted to be woken 3 hours before my alarm by the 5 Chinese men I was sharing a dorm room with as they simultaneously arose at 5am to loudly expel alarming amounts of phlegm from their lungs.

After a leisurely breakfast of something that looked a lot like a carpet in a sandwich, but tasted like meat flavoured cake (a Chinese staple) and coffee, I packed my bag and asked for directions to the bus station.

I was told to get on bus number 5, but being the sane and logical person I am, I just got on the first bus to go past. It wasn’t the number 5.

After realising that it probably wasn’t going to the bus station, I got off in the middle of nowhere and roamed around the streets until I found the train station instead.

At the train station there was a crowd of old women shouting at me about buying a plastic rain mac., I battled my way through them and got on a small minibus that claimed to be going to Yellow Mountain. The journey took around an hour and was fine until a Chinese family got on and took it in turns to sit right next to me and wordlessly pose for selfies next to the blonde ‘laowai’ (foreigner).

After being ditched in an empty car park and wished ‘good luck’ by a group of travellers on their decent, I took a second bus to the actual entrance to the mountain. This bus got stuck in traffic and refused to go all the way, so I essentially paid to be driven 3 feet up the road before walking the rest of the way.

The journey up the mountain taught me the importance of both packing lightly, and also always being photo ready. Which, after dragging myself and a bag of roughly a similar weight to myself, up a mountain, I was not. Not that that was any deterrent for the Chinese tourists who continued to both ask for photos with me, and just openly take them despite clear signals on my behalf suggesting that I was not a willing subject.

The weather was still great, and the mountain really is very photogenic. Here are some photos to prove that last statement.

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After a day of hiking around pretending to be some sort of photographer. I took myself off to eat at a restaurant with some highly appetizing items on the menu (see photos below). And tried to get an early night ready for getting up for sunrise which was happening at a time I didn’t know.

Unfortunately, the accommodation options at the top of the mountain were limited. What with all 1.3 billion visitors having booked in advance and everything. So I was stuck in a dorm. Of questionable cleanliness. With a Chinese family of 6 who deemed the bedroom the perfect place to eat spicy animal parts into the early hours.

The way down

AKA the day I realized why people had wished me ‘good luck’ for 2 days straight.

This is the day things went downhill. I know it sounds like they weren’t going uphill to begin with. But they were. I just like to express what a good time I’m having by pointing out all of the negatives. I’m a ray of sunshine like that.

I woke up at 5am and headed out to witness the sunrise that is so hyped about on TripAdvisor. After standing on a painfully windy rock alongside several thousand Chinese tourists for 2 hours I realized that it was now light and the sun had rudely risen without being pretty or anything.

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Worth getting up at 4.30 for a sunrise like this right?

The sunny weather from the previous two days had been replaced with rain and extreme fog. But I assumed that that was because it was 7am, and what with me not experiencing 7am very often, this was what it was always like.

So I grabbed my bag from the dorm and headed out to find some of the landmarks marked on the map I’d bought from the old plastic rain mac women the previous day. In hindsight, a rain mac was probably the way to go.

After about an hour and a half of wandering around on the mountain without seeing any other signs of life I figured I should head in the direction of down so that I wouldn’t miss my train back to Kunshan. And also because it was now properly raining and nothing on my person was waterproof.

It was as I was trying to find my way off the mountain that I ran into the 1.3 billion other people also trying to find their way off the mountain.

A 3 hour queue ensued, during which I learned that Chinese people don’t tend to wait patiently in queues. They push. Even on the edge of very steep precipices.

We queued alongside a different queue headed in the other direction for the cable car. It looked longer than ours and I was glad I wasn’t in it.

ice queue

A very small section of the queue taken before I lost my will to live completely

Eventually I reached the front, which sported a sign informing me that ‘due to forecast storms’ the steps down were closed. I turned around, joined the queue in the other direction for the cable car and lost my will to live. Nothing dampens the spirit more than joining a continually moving queue for 3 and a half hours and still not seeing the end in sight!

I finally made it to the bottom where I changed. In public. From the dripping clothes I was in to some from my backpack that were only quite wet. Because if you’re already a source of entertainment just for not being Chinese, then why wouldn’t you take off all of your clothes in a public place?

Clearly my bedraggled appearance made an impact on the woman sitting next to me on the overnight train back home. She made up for staring at me try to sleep by feeding me small Chinese oranges every hour or so, like she was trying to cure me of scurvy.

Conclusion

Huangshan, not for you if you don’t like hiking and beautiful scenery.

However, if you enjoy suffocating crowds, small oranges, being pushed by thousands of people, and having unflattering photographs taken of you by strangers despite categorically not giving your permission. Then a Chinese New Year trip to the Yellow Mountains is your ideal vacation.

The moral of the story is, basically, if you have the misfortune to be in China on a public holiday it’s probably best to just stay indoors until it goes away. And if literally everything you read about a place, no matter how positive, warns against visiting at a certain time (like this). Then maybe take notice.

‘Hey British Face!’

Apparently not racist or offensive in China?

So when the guy installing new lights at the school approached me with a Stephen Hawking-Esque recording of the following ‘Hey British face, I want to take a photo with you’ it was deemed a perfectly reasonable request.

Unfortunately, since I had already confused/offended him by laughing at his translation for a solid minute I felt obliged to comply. Thus 5 minutes of me awkwardly standing around like a waxwork exhibit at Madame Tussauds ensued, while he performed various creative poses around me and my ‘British face’.

At least he left by thanking me ‘for the beauty of the United Kingdom’.

Just everyday life in China I guess.

 

The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base Chengdu

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What do most people think of when they hear the word ‘China’? Apart from overpopulation, unacceptable levels of pollution, and Kung Pao chicken… Pandas of course!

And I wanted to see them. Not just my local suicidal lone red panda that resides in the world’s worst zoo. But like actual black and white, pandas. That weren’t ready to end their own lives.

Since the Chengdu Panda Research Base is the number one thing to do in the province of Sichuan on TripAdvisor, and I have developed a weird dependency on review based apps. That’s where I set my sights on meeting the weird balls of fluff that China is famous for.

After deliberating for about 3 seconds I decided against heading off to see them alone and instead opted for a tour organised by the hostel I was staying at. Because, I’m lazy. And also it only cost the equivalent of like $18 (£15). Which in my opinion is worth it. I’ve already had enough ‘fun’ experiences navigating Chinese tourist spots on public holidays. It’s the worst.

So the next morning 6 of us piled into a minivan at some ungodly hour of the morning (7.40am) in order to ‘catch the Pandas at their most lively’, and by ‘most lively’ presumably they just meant conscious. Turns out they’re not known for their active lifestyles.

We spent a full morning trying to get through a crowd 70 men deep, while maintaining enough cool to not punch those 70 men in the face. Followed by about 40 minutes watching them aimlessly roll around (the pandas, not the men). And, in my case, a full half an hour hoping this one would fall out of a tree (it didn’t).

During this time I gathered, from watching and also reading the Panda information signposts that are dotted around, that Pandas enjoy the kind of life that dreams are made of.

They eat for up to 16 hours a day.

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Only move when absolutely necessary.

And seem to spend the vast majority of their time falling down and being utterly bewildered as to why.

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It’s like they want to become extinct! It’s also unnerving how much my life resembles that of a lazy endangered bear.

Then we moved on to the Red Pandas. Who we were repeatedly warned, both by all of the signs, and actual real people, were very aggressive and so to stay at least 3 meters away at all times.

Look how threatening they are sitting around eating melons like they own the place!

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It was while I was taking these photos, from well over three meters away (because I didn’t feel like being mauled by a wild animal that day!) That one of the keepers casually opened a door and allowed a red panda to stroll over my foot as though the imminent threat to my life was of no concern.

Thankfully I survived the brush with death in time to be herded back to the minivan.

Apparently I could have chosen to leave a ‘small’ donation to have my picture taken hugging a panda but I didn’t feel like being relieved of my life savings so I decided against it.

But, I totally recommend the Chengdu Panda Base to anyone who wants to see what perfection looks like. Because pandas are living life correctly!

How do I apply to be one?

 

Have I been eating SEWAGE for 6 months?!

Just wanted to write to say that I have just had the privilege of discovering that many eating establishments here apparently source their oil from the sewers. THE SEWERS.

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That is all. I’m off to inflict a (hopefully amnesia inducing) head injury on myself now.

Happy Friday!

6 things I’ve learned from 6 months in China.

I am now almost exactly six months into my Chinese adventure and it’s been….different to England. Here are 6 of the things I have discovered so far in ‘The Middle Kingdom’.

1. I would not enjoy the life of a celebrity

It’s safe to say that if you do not enjoy your picture being taken both with and without your permission at all hours of the day, regardless of what you are doing, then China is not for you.

My personal favourite was being unexpectedly wedged into the arms of a statue by a group of Chinese tourists, only to be left stuck (and by ‘stuck’, I quite literally mean ‘unable to move without assistance’) there once they’d got bored of their novelty ‘laowai’ (foreigner).

2. Chinese cannot be directly translated into English

Although for comedy value, it should be.

3. Walking backwards while clapping your hands together is good for your brain…

…and is an integral part of your typical Chinese workout regime. Which also includes other classics such as; flapping ones arms as though trying to take flight, and repeatedly punching oneself in the thigh.

They are performed publicly and attract not even the bat of an eyelid. I on the other hand go out to buy a bottle of water and people act as though I’ve just emerged from a spaceship waving a bag of my own faeces around.

4. All parts of all animals are food.

And you will never be sure what animal or body part you are consuming at any time. Fun.

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Whole frogs?

5. Smaller is always better.

I cannot tell you how many times strangers have approached me, raised a hand as a measuring tool, and complimented me on my small face. Something I still haven’t learned to respond to with anything more appropriate than an openly baffled ‘ermm thanks?’

So I was even more thrown when my (non English speaking) hairdresser took it upon himself to hack off two very noticeable chunks of hair at the front of my head to an alarmingly short length in order to ‘make my face look smaller’. Apparently a face can never be too small!

6. China is really big.

I took a 12 hour train from Shanghai to Huangshan. Through the night. At Chinese New Year. Twelve hours! That long on a train in England would take you wayyy out of the country. Not here. Below is a map of how far I traveled in an entire night. And yet they insist on just the one time zone.

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